The 1971 war with India and the military action in what was then East Pakistan is regarded by many as one of the darkest events in Pakistan’s short and chequered history. Defeat in the war led to the loss of its eastern wing, which became independent Bangladesh. Nearly 90,000 Pakistani soldiers were taken prisoner by India. Those in the western wing, which is what remains of the country today, were simply shocked.
Public demand for an inquiry led to the instituting of the judicial Commission under Hamoodur Rehman to investigate the political and military causes of the defeat. Hamoodur Rehman, who hailed from East Pakistan was the then chief justice of the Supreme Court. The other members of the Commission were Justice Shaikh Anwar-ul-Haq of the Punjab High Court and Justice Tufail Ali Abdul Rehman of the Sindh High Court. The Commission took just over two years to prepare its report, but successive civilian and military authorities in Pakistan suppressed its publication because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The report has now been declassified, after portions were leaked to an Indian magazine last year. It is not difficult to understand why the authorities were opposed to its publication for it spares no one, including the man who ordered the inquiry—the charismatic prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
The Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report cites professional incompetence, defective defence strategy, lack of co-ordination between the army, navy and air force, and moral degeneration of the military high command as the major reasons for the 1971 debacle. The report observes that military planning was “hopelessly defective and there was no plan at all for the defence of Dhaka, nor any concerted effort to stem the enemy onslaught…”
Analysing the military dimension of the crisis, the Commission concludes that senior army commanders were guilty of “serious dereliction of duty” in formulating defence plans and “some are even guilty of shamefully abandoning the fortresses which it was their duty to defend.” East Pakistan military commander Gen A K Niazi and his deputy attract special censure for their “wilful neglect”.
By far the most sensational part of the report dwells on the ‘moral corruption’ of senior military officers. While Pakistan was on the brink of break-up, “the military elite was busy in womanising”. Interestingly, the report traces this moral degeneration to their involvement in martial law duties under Ayub Khan in 1958. These tendencies reappeared and were intensified, it adds, with Gen Yahya Khan’s martial law in 1969.
The report finds substance “in the allegation that a large number of senior army officers had not only indulged in large-scale acquisition of lands and houses and other commercial activities but also adopted highly immoral and licentious ways of life, which seriously affected their professional capabilities and their qualities of leadership”.
The report describes Gen Yahya as a womaniser and a drunkard and actually mentions over 200 women who used to visit the military ruler. “The most damaging allegation against the ex-President and commander-in-chief is that he was leading an extremely licentious life, devoting most of his time to wine and women. During the fateful days of the war, the General even stopped attending the President’s Office and did not visit the operation room in the GHQ [military headquarters] on more than two to three occasions. He was addicted to heavy drinking and was extremely friendly with a number of ladies of indifferent repute who took lot of his time even during the critical days of the war and during the period immediately preceding the war.”
Among the women who are reported to have visited the President House were Begum Shamim, the wife of the East Pakistan police chief; the Begum of Junagadh; the famous singer Noor Jehan (see Obituary, Himal, February 2001); and society ladies of Dhaka such as Lily Khan and Laila Muzammil. During November 1971, when things were taking a serious turn in East Pakistan, the report says, Gen Yahya spent three days at Governor House in Lahore, where Noor Jehan (who passed away in late December 2000) “used to visit him two or three times daily and would also come to him at about 8 every night”.
About Gen Yayha’s deputy, Gen Abdul Hamid, the Commission says, “It is indeed a national tragedy that he was a frequent partner with Yahya in many of these adventures. Frequently the two would slip out to Gen Yahya’s house in Harley Street, Rawalpindi, for the purpose of meeting some of their female friends.”
Of East Pakistan Commander Gen Niazi, the report says that while posted at Sialkot and Lahore, he made “lakhs of rupees in various transactions affecting the disposal of criminal cases brought under the martial law against smugglers and other criminals.” The General was also “on intimate terms with one Saeeda Bokhari of Gulberg, Lahore, who was running a brothel under the name of ‘Senorita Home’ where young women were residing in independent rooms. Another woman, Shamim Firdaus of Sialkot, also playing the same role, was associated with Niazi.”
Says the Commission, “Saeeda used to visit Niazi even in East Pakistan. It was known all over the town that Niazi was having a jolly good time late in the night. He used to visit some bungalows in Dhan Mandi, Dhaka. Even during Ramadan, dancing girls were brought to a home for the pleasure of the Generals and corps commander. Niazi used to go to the houses of
the dancing girls in his car bearing three stars and the official flags and with all his paraphernalia,” says the Commission.
While the Commission is harsh on the military high command, undivided Pakistan’s civilian leadership also comes in for its share of criticism. The report identifies Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as one of the main culprits responsible for the upheaval of 1971. It is particularly critical of his demand that the inaugural session of the National Assembly be postponed, which was what started the unravelling process. This assembly was constituted by the 1970 elections which brought Bhutto a majority in West Pakistan and won Sheikh Mujibur Rahman a majority in East Pakistan. It was this divided mandate which precipitated the political crisis and the break with Dhaka.
Bhutto’s insistence that Mujib soften his Six-Point Programme (SPP), which demanded autonomy for East Pakistan in various matters, before Parliament could be convened, finds adverse mention in the document: “It has to be remembered that, rightly or wrongly, the Awami League had won a mandate from the people in East Pakistan in favour of SPP, and could not be expected to announce a deviation therefrom without discussion and give and take on the floor of the House.”
The report goes on to charge Mujib with inciting separatist tendencies by hoisting the Bangladesh flag atop his house on 23 March. At his bidding, flags also appeared on government buildings and private houses on that day in East Pakistan.
On the Pakistan Army action against the Mukti Bahini, the separatist militia, the Commission says that at midnight on 26 March, 1971, “Dhaka awakened to the noise of thunderous gunfire. The military action, which has since become so well known, had started.” It adds, “Quite obviously such an action could not have been taken without some previous preparations. Indeed no secret has been made of the fact that a contingency plan known as ‘Operation Blitz’ had been in readiness for a long time and it has been on that account suggested that the negotiations [between the military government and Mujib’s Awami League] which were carried on from about the middle of March up to the date were no more than a camouflage, it being all along the intention of Gen Yahya and his military advisors to cow down the Awami League with a heavy hand.”
The planning and higher direction of war is discussed in a separate section. “Some have even suggested that our strategy was so vague, our tactical objectives so obscure and our decisions so hesitant and faulty that the ignominy of the disaster lay more in disorganised activity and absence of co-ordinated effort rather than the lack of men and material during the closing phases of the war.”
Break a leg
Political failure is the other key element that the document dwells on. This failure had much to do with Gen Yahya’s own ambitions. Intelligence estimates had informed him before the 1970 elections that a split mandate would be the most likely result. He felt that such an outcome would allow him to manipulate the new National Assembly and retain ultimate power.
In the event, the result was not quite what the military junta had hoped for. Mujib’s Awami League swept all but two National Assembly seats in East Pakistan. In West Pakistan, Bhutto’s Peoples Party took a majority of the seats, not only in Bhutto’s native province Sindh, but also in Punjab. It failed, however, to command a majority in Balochistan or the Frontier province, where the nationalist parties, National Awami Party and the Jamiat Ulema Islam in coalition held sway.
In this stalemate, Bhutto joined hands with the military junta to deny the Awami League its right to form the government. His threat to “break the legs” of any member who went to Dhaka for the National Assembly session called in early March provided the excuse for Yahya to postpone the session. Many historians feel that this was the decision that let loose the chain of events that culminated in the surrender at Dhaka on 16 December and the ceasefire on the western front on 17 December 1971.
The insight into dangers of involving the military in civilian administration is perhaps what Pakistan can benefit from the most in reading the Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission report. This involvement, which has recurred periodically in Pakistan’s history, is what has obstructed the emergence of a stable democratic establishment.
However, this is a lesson that even the most astute politicians of Pakistan have ignored. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for instance, redefined the mission of the armed forces to include the suppression of internal dissent. Less than two years after the East Pakistan debacle, Bhutto unleashed the army on the province of Balochistan to resolve a purely political issue within the province. Predictably, this enabled the army to eventually overthrow Bhutto when he himself was at his weakest.
Had the Commission’s report been declassified earlier, perhaps subsequent political leaders could have benefited (though, on second thought, this seems unlikely) from its insight and made them more alert to limiting the army to its appropriate functions. Prime minister Nawaz Sharif involved the army in various economic and administrative tasks of strategic significance, such as in running the power unit Wapda. This was the thin end of the wedge that not only prematurely aborted his rule through a military coup, but also laid the foundations for a process that has been gathering pace under Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s present regime: the steady and unremitting militarisation of most civilian institutions through the induction of serving or retired armed forces personnel.